A black box is a device that has inputs and outputs – no one cares what’s in between. You feed something into a black box – money, arms, military attacks – and you get something out. No thought is given to what actually occurs inside the box. As long as you get what you want, or prevent what you don’t want, you don’t concern yourself with the millions of human lives affected.
That, throughout the postwar period, has been the way the world has regarded the Arab and Persian countries of the Middle East, and it is the predominant reason why dictatorship, terrorism, theocracy and religious extremism have become potent forces there while fading away everywhere else in the world. The normal path of economic development and political modernization has been held back by the black-boxing of these countries and their autocratic regimes.
This pattern becomes startlingly clear in David Crist’s dense and important new book, The Twilight War. While ostensibly a U.S. government historian’s inside account of relations with Iran in the three decades since the Islamic revolution, the result spans the entire Middle East and the motives behind virtually all the Western policy decisions – most of them disastrous – that have shaped the region.
The black boxes were created in the late years of the Cold War, when the Carter and Reagan administrations used the Middle East and its oil as the ultimate showdown with the Soviets. Westerners were guided by the thinking Mr. Crist attributes to a senior U.S. leader who “cared little about the regional conflicts or their long-term consequences, except in terms of how they affected the balance of power in the East-West rivalry.”
Black-box thinking led Egypt’s dictators to become the largest recipients of U.S. aid (and sometimes of Soviet aid) and the Saudi autocrats to become among the closest U.S. allies – which both allowed them to maintain power and to ignore the material and political needs of their people.
And black-box thinking turned Lebanon’s civil war into a conflagration that virtually created the current Islamic politics of the region. It would not have gone that way, Mr. Crist convincingly shows, if the U.S. and Israel had not turned Beirut into a black box. If they hadn’t, “I don’t know whether something called Hezbollah would have been born,” the terrorist movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is quoted as saying. “I doubt it.”
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